When Pope Benedict XVI stepped down from the Petrine ministry on February 28, 2013, and Francis was elected pope on March 13 of that year, a totally new situation was created, one not previously known in the history of the papacy and the Church. We still lack dogmatically adequate ways of understanding and expressing it. On the one hand, we must avoid the heretical idea of dual leadership (as in speaking about “two popes”), and on the other hand we must recognize the fact that—according to current parlance—there is an “emeritus” pope, a Bishop of Rome who no longer holds the Petrine office. The problem is that the Bishop of Rome as successor of Peter constitutes the principle of unity, which can only be realized by one person. In reality there can only be one pope, which means the terminological distinctions between a “current” and a “retired” pope, or between an active holder of Roman primacy and a passive participant in it, are not helpful.
It is popular to note the fact that diocesan bishops are able to retire; but this is to overlook the unique character of the Roman bishop, who personally is the successor of Peter and as such constitutes the rock on which Jesus builds his Church. He is not only, like the other bishops, successor of the apostles in the college of all bishops. The pope specifically and individually is the successor of the apostle Peter, while the other bishops are not successors of a single apostle, but of the apostles in general.
Therefore, the extraordinary “retirement” of the Bishop of Rome—who “as the successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful” (Lumen gentium, 23)—should neither be compared with the so-called retirement of other bishops, nor normalized as the moral right “to go on pension” after a long work-life. Instead, we should confront the challenges that the existence of a papa emeritus poses for how we comprehend the sacramentality of the Church and the sacred primacy of Peter. This requires finding a theological way of understanding the current exceptional situation.
The Bishop of Rome is the successor of Peter only as long as he lives and does not voluntarily resign. The episcopal functions of teaching, governing, and sanctifying are essentially included in the sacrament of ordination, while the legitimate pope possesses the charism of infallibility ex cathedra in rebus fidei vel morum and the primacy of jurisdiction only as long as he is in office. By voluntary resignation from the office, all papal prerogatives and Petrine authority expire. It was premature to think that if there can be a retired bishop of New York or Sydney, then a “retired” pope would also be possible. The title “pope” is only the customary way of designating the prerogatives of the Bishop of Rome as successor of Peter. But every Bishop of Rome is successor of Peter only as long as he is occupying the chair of St. Peter. He is not the successor of his predecessors, and therefore there can never be two Roman bishops, popes and successors of Peter, at the same time.
Thanks to the many images, in both secular and Catholic media, of “two popes” side by side, it has become somehow unavoidable to compare the pontificates of two living people. We cannot overlook the fact that in an age of secular thought and mass media, political and ideological considerations contaminate theological judgments, which are considerations in the light of faith in the supernatural mission of the Church. In extreme cases—depending on prevailing interests—the principles of Catholic theology are suspiciously ascribed to “conservative” or “liberal” ideology. Positive or critical views on one pontificate are abused and instrumentalized at the cost of the other.
Examples of this detrimental antagonism between the pontificates of two living actors in contemporary history are legion. Every day they appear in newspaper commentaries and on blogs and websites. But in reality, the people of God have a spiritual and theological interest in what unites Benedict XVI and Pope Francis in their care for Christ’s Church, not in what distinguishes the personal style of the former and the current pope.
At stake is the dignity of the Petrine ministry. This we have to take into account in how we define Benedict XVI's place in the Church now. Things like the white cassock or his practice of giving the apostolic blessing are not central here. The office of the Bishop of Rome, because he is the successor of Peter, cannot be separated from the Petrine ministry, which concerns the primacy of teaching and jurisdiction. The proposal to have a former pope return to the College of Cardinals does not solve the fundamental problem, which is about how the office of Roman bishop relates to the Petrine prerogatives. To which local church is the former pope’s episcopal dignity (as diocesan or titular bishop) related if it is not the Roman Church? Maybe we could imagine him becoming the bishop of Ostia, in Rome’s immediate vicinity, without actively taking over governance of that diocese and without participating as cardinal in conclaves or consistories.
Describing the relationship between the former and the current pope cannot depend on personal sympathies. It is an objective question about the office instituted by Christ. As editor of the collected works of Joseph Ratzinger, I know enough to honor his theological genius. And having spent much time in Latin America, I deeply value Pope Francis's tireless work for the world's poor. I have always interpreted ambiguous phrases in Amoris laetitia and Fratelli tutti loyally and in continuity with the Church’s magisterium—even if people playing tactics in Church politics reject that continuity. When we bishops and especially Roman cardinals have to publicly defend “the truth of the Gospel” (Gal. 2:14), it is much more than an act of fraternal correction, which we all need as long as we are pilgrims on this earth.
With reference to St. Augustine, St. Thomas explains it like this: “Hence Paul, who was Peter’s subject, rebuked him in public, on account of the imminent danger of scandal concerning faith” (Summa theologiae II-II q. 33 a. 4 ad 2). Analogously, cardinals today serve the papacy more by solid arguments than by flimsy panegyrics. In the Divine Comedy, Dante relegates flatterers to the eighth circle of hell—but (in the spirit of Christian humor) I do not want to make that reference without pointing to the ever-greater mercy of God.
For the Church in today’s world, a serious and deep reflection “about the institution, the perpetuity, the meaning and reason for the sacred primacy of the Roman Pontiff” (Lumen gentium, 18) is indispensable. This much is absolutely certain: Christ, the living foundation and the ever-present founder of the Church, made the Galilean fisherman Simon the first of his apostles—not to offer him a platform for personal fulfillment, or to provide employment to a court, but to make him a “Servant of the Servants of God” who gives himself totally. This is how Pope St. Gregory the Great (+604) described the unique role of the Roman pope.
From a dogmatic standpoint, it is highly questionable to classify essential properties of the Petrine ministry as “historical titles,” as in recent editions of the Annuario Pontificio. Humility is a personal virtue that any minister of Christ should cultivate. But it does not justify somehow relativizing the authority Christ gave to his apostles and their successors for the salvation of men and the edification of his Church. Christianity is rooted in the historic realization of salvation; otherwise, historical realities would only be a kind of garment in which a timeless myth clothes itself. Christ is the consubstantial Son in the trinitarian unity of God, and it took a long time, and great controversies about the truth concerning the mystery of Christ, for Christological terminology to unfold. In an analogous way, the terms “successor of Peter, Vicar of Christ and visible Head of the whole Church” (Lumen gentium, 18) express the inner truth about the Roman primacy, even if these titles were applied to the Roman pope only in the course of time.
There is no doubt that, according to the will of Christ, the Bishop of Rome is the successor of Peter. With the authority of Christ, he exercises the power of the keys over the whole Church entrusted to him (Matt. 16:18). By martyrdom of blood and unbloody martyrdom, which is to say the witness to the “teaching of the apostles” (Acts 2:42), Peter together with Paul has handed to the Church of Rome his enduring ministry of unity to all the faithful, and has once and for all established the Cathedra Petri in that city (cf. Irenaeus of Lyon, Against the Heresies III 3,3). The ground and heart of Peter’s ministry is his confession of Christ, “in order that the episcopate itself might be one and undivided.” For this reason, Jesus “placed Blessed Peter over the other apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and communion” (Lumen gentium, 18).
Peter is not the center of the Church or the focal point of being Christian (sanctifying grace and being a child of God are). He, like his successors on the seat of the Church of Rome, are the first witnesses to the true foundation and singular principle of our salvation: Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God the Father. “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who has made him known” (John 1:18). Christ Jesus is the one and only Mediator between God and men (1 Tim. 2:5).
“The Church of the living God,” under the pope's leadership, is the witness and intermediary of God’s irrevocable self-communication as truth and life to every human person. The Church cannot make herself subject to the goals of a manmade, religious-moral or economic-ecological new world order, even if the “leaders and guardians” of such an order would recognize the pope as their honorary guide. This, in fact, was the apocalyptic nightmare of the Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev (1853–1900) in A Story of Anti-Christ (1899). The true pope, as vicar of the crucified and risen Lord, upholds the confession to the kingdom of God: “Our only Lord is Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God.”
An appeal to universal brotherhood without Jesus Christ, the one and true redeemer of mankind, would take us into a no-man’s-land without a theology of revelation. Sound guidance requires the pope as the head of the whole episcopate that unites all believers again and again in the explicit confession of Peter to “Christ the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). In no way, therefore, is the Church of the triune God a community of people adhering to one historical expression of a universal human religion.
The Catholic Church, “governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him” (Lumen gentium, 8), is the “household of God” and stands as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). This is the truth of faith: Christ Jesus “was revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory” (1 Tim. 3:16).
The Second Vatican Council says: Because “Christ is the light of nations,” we have as revealed truth that “the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race” (Lumen gentium, 1). Consequently, religious pluralism and relativism need to be rejected. “Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved” (Lumen gentium, 14).
In interreligious dialogue with Islam, we must profess frankly that Jesus is not “one of the prophets” (Matt. 16:14), “as if” outside the Christian doctrine, in the nowhere of religious feeling—as armchair theologians like to say—“we ultimately somehow mean the same.” For Jesus alone reveals with divine authority the mystery of God: “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt. 11:27).
Our thinking about the Petrine ministry, i.e. the Roman primacy, needs to revolve around this Christo-centrism. It bestows on the Petrine ministry its irreplaceable importance for the Church—in her origin, her life, and her mission, her ministry serves Christ until he returns at the end of time. It is significant that in all three major paragraphs of the New Testament that speak about the Petrine ministry (Matt. 16:18; Luke 22:32; John 21:15-17), Jesus always points Peter to his human weaknesses and fragile faith, reminding him of his betrayal and rebuking him harshly for misunderstanding the Messiah as one without suffering and the cross. The Lord assigns him second place, so that Peter has to follow Jesus, and never the other way around. The title “Vicar of Christ”—theologically understood—does not elevate the pope, but radically abases him and humbles him before God and men when “setting (his) mind not on divine things but on human things” (Matt. 16:23). Peter has no right to adapt the word of God to his own preferences and to the tastes of the time, “so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power” (1 Cor. 1:17).
As disciples of Christ, we are exposed to the temptations of Satan, who wants to confuse us about our faith in Christ, the Son of the living God, who “is truly the Savior of the world” (John 4:42). For this reason, Jesus says to Peter and to all his successors on the Roman cathedra: “I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail (ut non deficiat fides tua); and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers (et tu conversus confirma fratres tuos)” (Luke 22:32). All Christians enjoy Christ's sustaining grace, including the “pope emeritus.” But this prayer of divine support is offered to the man seated in the chair of St. Peter, of which there can be only one.
Gerhard Ludwig Müller is former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
This essay is an abridged version of a piece originally published in VATICAN Magazin. Translated from the German by Msgr. Hans Feichtinger.
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